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What’s different for Ohio State basketball since the end of the 2019-20 season?

Last year the regular season ended in optimism, this year, not so much.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Ohio State Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, the No. 7 Ohio State men’s basketball team lost a regular season-ending heart breaker to No. 4 Illinois, 73-68. Chris Holtmann’s squad hasn’t won since a 92-82 victory over Penn State on Feb. 18, dropping games to No. 3 Michigan (92-87), Michigan State (71-67), No. 9 Iowa (73-57), and the Illini.

During this losing streak, a lot has been made about what might have changed for OSU in the past two and a half weeks, but I think that it is just as interesting to consider what has changed (and what hasn’t changed) for the Buckeyes since this point in 2020. As you might remember, the 2019-20 college basketball season was abruptly ended as concerns about COVID-19 began to increase around the country.

The Buckeyes lost their regular season finale to then-No. 16 Michigan State, but had no opportunity to capitalize on a previous white-hot six weeks, because both the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments were eventually canceled.

Despite the 80-69 defeat at the Breslin Center on Sunday, March 8, 2020, the Buckeyes were trending upward, and many fans had begun to get excited about their potential to finally break past the Round of 32 under Holtmann’s leadership.

Fast forward to the end of the 2020-21 regular season, and things are very different for the Buckeyes. This year’s version found a way to avoid the dreaded Holtmann-January slump that knocked last year’s version from the No. 2 ranking in late December to unranked less than a month later.

This year, after dropping their game against Minnesota on Jan. 3, the Buckeyes won 10 of their next 11 to get as high as No. 4 in the AP Poll — a position which they held for three weeks before their four-game skid dropped them to seventh, and potentially lower when the new rankings come out this week.

So, despite how different the last two regular seasons have been, I thought it might be instructive to compare the two campaigns to see if the dread felt throughout Buckeye Nation in recent days was warranted, especially in comparison to the optimism felt a year ago, pre-COVID.

Basic Season Info

Stat 2019-20 Team 2020-21 Team
Stat 2019-20 Team 2020-21 Team
Overall Record 21-10 18-8
Final AP/Net Ranking 19/15 7/8 (final regular season rankings to come)
Big Ten Record 11-9 12-8
Big Ten Rank 5th 5th
Points Per Game 72.1 76.8
Points Allowed Per Game 62.9 69.9
SRS 7th 7th
KenPom Ranking 8th 7th
KenPom AdjEM 22.23 25.94
KenPom AdjO 114.3 (13) 122.6 (4)
KenPomAdjD 92.0 (19) 96.7 (80)

When looking at the basic numbers and analytics, the teams don’t look that dissimilar; it is when you start comparing the offenses and defenses of the two teams where you start to see what makes them different. This season’s offense is one of the best and most efficient in the country, ranking fourth in KenPom’s numbers. However, after being in the top-25 defensively in three of the last four seasons, OSU’s numbers on that end of the floor have plummeted dramatically, putting them at 80th in the country. It is their defensive effort that has caused the most consternation for Buckeye fans over the past month of the regular season.

But from there, you have to ask yourself, why is this team markedly worse on the defensive end? Certainly Holtmann hasn’t given up coaching defensive fundamentals. It’s not like they have adopted a new scheme that so overvalues buckets that they expend minimal energy on defense. So what is it? I think the easiest answer comes from the construction of the team.

Roster Comparison

Position 2019-20 Team 2020-21 Team
Position 2019-20 Team 2020-21 Team
Guard Duane Washington Duane Washington
Guard CJ Walker CJ Walker
Guard Luther Muhammad Musa Jallow
Guard D.J. Carton Eugene Brown
Guard Danny Hummer Meechie Johnson
Guard Jimmy Sotos
Guard Jansen Davidson
Forward E.J. Liddell E.J. Liddell
Forward Kyle Young Kyle Young
Forward Justin Ahrens Justin Ahrens
Forward Ibrahima Diallo Ibrahima Diallo
Forward Harrison Hoofkin Harrison Hoofkin
Forward Kaleb Wesson Justice Sueing
Forward Andre Wesson Zed Key
Forward Alonzo Gaffney Seth Towns

Only three substantive contributors from last year’s roster returned (CJ Walker, Duane Washington Jr., and Kyle Young), with E.J. Liddell and Justin Ahrens obviously taking on far more vital roles than they had a year ago. With the additions of transfers (Justice Sueing, Seth Towns) and freshmen (Zed Key, Eugene Brown, Meechie Johnson), as well as the return of a semi-healthy Musa Jallow, the squad that Holtmann is running out there on a regular basis this season is significantly different than it was a year ago.

Last year, OSU was buoyed on the defensive end by the likes of Andre Wesson, Luther Muhammad, D.J. Carton, and even Kaleb Wesson. While their replacements have been more successful on the offensive end collectively, they haven’t been able to pick up the slack on the other. I think it is a mix of effort, mindset, and specific skill sets, but it’s real. They can turn the D on at times, like they did in the first 12-15 minutes of the second half against Illinois on Saturday. But, it’s been a while since we’ve seen a cohesive defensive effort for 40 minutes from the Buckeyes.

Then there is the fact that the Big Ten is undoubtedly the best conference in the country this season. At this time last year, the B1G had no teams in the top-eight of the AP Poll, while as of now, four of the top seven teams in the country come from our humble conference.

While the number of ranked B1G teams is the same as at the end of the 2019-20 regular season, the fact that there is such a coagulation at the top of the rankings makes things much more treacherous to navigate than a season ago. It is also why four and five-point losses over the past few weeks haven’t damaged OSU’s rankings in the minds of the pollsters nearly as much as outsiders would expect.

AP Ranking Comparison

Rank 2019-20 Team 2020-21 Team
Rank 2019-20 Team 2020-21 Team
No. 2 Michigan
No. 4 Illinois
No. 5 Iowa
No. 7 Ohio State
No. 9 Michigan State
No. 12 Maryland
No. 17 Wisconsin
No. 19 Ohio State
No. 21 Illinois
No. 23 Purdue
No. 25 Iowa Wisconsin

This is borne out when you look at Joe Lunardi’s official Bracketology projections for ESPN at the end of the respective regular seasons. A season ago, no B1G squad was projected to be on either of the top two lines in the Big Dance. This year, the conference is on pace to claim half of the top eight overall seeds. Things get a little tighter as we move down to seeds 3-8, and last year’s B1G actually was projected to have more berths (10) than this year (9), but where those teams fall in the pecking order (and in OSU’s schedule) makes a huge difference.

Bracketology Comparison

Seeds 2019-20 Teams 2020-21 Teams
Seeds 2019-20 Teams 2020-21 Teams
No. 1 N/A Illinois, Michigan
No. 2 N/A Iowa, Ohio State
No. 3 Michigan State N/A
No. 4 Wisconsin, Maryland Purdue
No. 5 Ohio State N/A
No. 6 Iowa, Michigan, Penn State Wisconsin
No. 7 Illinois N/A
No. 8 Rutgers N/A
No. 9 N/A Maryland
No. 10 N/A Rutgers
No. 11 Indiana (First Four) Michigan State (First Four)
No. 12 N/A N/A
No. 13 N/A N/A
No. 14 N/A N/A
No. 15 N/A N/A
No. 16 N/A N/A

During their current four-game losing streak, the Buckeyes have played four tournament teams — three top-10 teams, and two top-5 teams. Three of those four games were decided by five or fewer points, while the Iowa game was admittedly a bit of a blowout.

None of this is to make excuses for the team, nor is it to say that the Buckeyes have nothing to worry about in the upcoming postseason. Instead, it is just a reminder a slight dose of perspective as the team ventures into the B1G Tournament and eventually into the NCAA Tourney as well.

Chris Holtmann’s squad has been battle tested this season, especially in the past two and a half weeks. And, if they hold on to their current seeding projection, they likely won’t face a team as good as Michigan, Iowa, or Illinois until the Sweet 16 at the earliest. Does that guarantee that they will finally advance past the Round of 32 for the first time since 2013? Nope, but I hope it makes the doomsdayers amongst us from completely jumping off the bandwagon, because when this team has everything clicking, they can be a ton of fun to watch, and very difficult to defeat.